It was one of the most divisive shows in British pop history. On 7 April 1987, Paul Simon brought his best-selling Graceland project to the Royal Albert Hall in London for the first of six sold-out concerts.
On stage, he was joined by the cream of South African musicians, including Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, but outside, leading British musicians joined people protesting that Simon had broken the ANC’s cultural boycott of apartheid-era South Africa.
They included Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and Jerry Dammers, famous for writing one of the great anti-apartheid anthems, Nelson Mandela. They had delivered an angry letter to Simon, asking him to apologise.
Now, 25 years on, the Guardian can reveal that Paul Simon is reviving Graceland and returning to London for a concert in Hyde Park on 15 July as part of the Hard Rock Calling festival.
Simon will be joined once again by Ladysmith Black Mambazo and other South African musicians, though not by Hugh Masekela.
And there will be a newcomer, Jamaican star Jimmy Cliff, who sang on the pro-cultural boycott song Sun City. The 25th anniversary celebrations will also bring new editions of the album, and the UK premiere of Joe Berlinger’s documentary Paul Simon: Under African Skies.
The revival seems certain to be a massive commercial success: Graceland sold 14m copies worldwide when it was released, and remains Simon’s most popular solo work, winning two Grammys and producing three hit singles. But the concert, and Berlinger’s well-judged film, are bound to revive the arguments about Graceland and apartheid.
Looking back on the demonstration, Bragg said: “It pained me to be part of that because I’m a Paul Simon fan, but he was on the wrong side of the argument despite his good intentions. The cultural boycott was part of the economic boycott that brought South Africa to heel. Paul Simon set his own terms, and that had to be done by people on the ground.”
Dammers said: “I still believe he was wrong to go there and contravene the boycott, but that’s in the past. It’s the time not to forgive and forget, but to remember and forgive.
In Berlinger’s film, to be shown at the London Sundance film festival next month, Simon is seen discussing the issue with Dali Tambo, the founder of Artists Against Apartheid and the son of the former ANC president Oliver Tambo.
Speaking from South Africa, Tambo told the Guardian: “I forgive him, though he was going against the policy of the UN and the ANC, inside and outside the country. In our discussions he explained his naivety at the time. I believe his heart was in the right place, even if his actions were not correct. I hope there’s a graceful acceptance on his part that cultural exchange takes place between free people, and the people of South Africa were not free at that time.”
So how did Tambo react to news of the Hyde Park concert? “I’d go, if I was in London. He’s written great songs, and I’ve never objected to his music.”
Bragg agreed: “I’d go along. It’s a great record.”
The row that caused such a furious clash of music and politics all started when Simon heard a bootleg tape of South African township music, Gumboots Accordion Jive Vol II, and bravely decided to incorporate such styles into his work.
Perhaps less wisely, he decided to go to South Africa in 1985 to record with local musicians, for by doing so he found himself accused of breaking the UN cultural boycott against the apartheid regime.
When I asked about this at a press conference to launch the Graceland album in 1986, he pointed out that he had not gone to South Africa to make money by performing at the Sun City complex, as had Rod Stewart and Queen, who later apologised, but to help bring the country’s “rich music” to the rest of the world.
Pressed further, he agreed that he had not asked permission from the ANC “or Desmond Tutu, or the Pretoria government”, and argued: “I’m with the musicians. I’m with the artists.”
As Graceland’s success grew, the row rumbled on and became more confused, with Simon saying he had been cleared by the ANC, then Dali Tambo countering that no such clearance had been given.
But by early 1987, Simon had new and influential allies. Masekela, a trumpeter in exile and a hero for many in the ANC, praised Simon for helping encourage black South African music.
He suggested that they should tour together, mixing songs from Graceland with South African songs, and that they should be joined by South Africa’s greatest singer, and passionate anti-apartheid campaigner, Miriam Makeba, who has since died.
Also involved were Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who appeared on Graceland, and members of Stimela. The Graceland effect had spread to other musicians on the tour even before it began, with Masekela and Ladysmith signing new recording contracts as a new audience discovered South African music.
Twenty-five years on, it seems that Simon is determined to end the cultural boycott row.
This time it will be possible to listen to Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes and You Can Call Me Al without worrying about an apartheid government in Pretoria laughing at the chaos it caused.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010